Each year during Ramadan, professional Muslim athletes from all over the globe face the challenge of fasting during while competing in sports competitions.

With the rise in the number of Muslim players participating in various European and international competitions, the question of whether fasting has an effect on player performance has become crucial.

Players in the Middle East and Islamic countries often benefit from coaches adjusting training schedules to reflect Ramadan timings. In non-Islamic countries, however, coaches can find it difficult to change an entire team’s schedule for a minority of players. For fasting athletes, Ramadan intermittent fasting is a challenge that could impact their performance.

Fasting Affects Performance: Illusion or Reality?

According to a study in 2018, fasting can negatively affect football players’ performance. The study, conducted in Malaysia, revealed that football players witnessed a significant decline in the distance they ran during matches while they were fasting (the impacted distances were ‘distance covered at high intensity’ and ‘distance covered at moderate intensity’ by players during the match).

Experts from Aspetar agree with the authors of this study, who suggested that one of the contributing factors to this decline could be a phenomenon known as the Nocebo effect, or ‘imaginary/anticipatory fatigue’.

In fact, the player feels that fasting will affect his performance negatively, when in reality it may not. A study by Aspetar has shown that professional football players who played in an important competition during Ramadan showed negative beliefs and attitudes towards the fact that they would be competing while fasting. These negative beliefs contribute to any decline in performance observed during the month of Ramadan.

However, not all athlete’s efforts are affected by Ramadan fasting. Studies have shown that when elite athletes eat and hydrate well during night hours and ensure they get the optimum quality and quantity of sleep, many physical performance measures are not impacted by Ramadan fasting. Obviously, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution because Ramadan’s effects vary depending on geographical location, the country’s proximity to the equator, and the season, amongst others.

For example, professional athletes in Qatar fast for around 15 hours a day. However, athletes living away from the equator, like in European countries, fast for shorter hours during winter and longer hours during summer, reaching up to 20-21 hours in some cases. Such a lengthy deprivation of nutrition and hydration, and such disruption to sleeping patterns, will potentially affect athletes’ performance.

Health Benefits of Fasting

According to nutrition experts, fasting during the day can help prevent health problems and improve mental health. Muslim athletes are actually recommended to keep fasting throughout the year. By following the Sunna religious rules, advising Muslims to fast two days a week, athletes could get used to physical training while fasting. Not only is this beneficial for health, but it will certainly render training and competing during Ramadan easier. However, training while fasting should follow practical tips to optimise and render it less challenging.

Nutrition and Sleeping Cycles

During the holy month of Ramadan, athletes face a significant change in their diet as a result of modifying their eating routine. This may be accompanied by mild digestive disorders. According to Aspetar experts, a balanced nutrition enables athletes to optimise their performance while maintaining a balanced sleeping cycle. Athletes have to take into account that falling asleep after a heavy meal like Suhoor will be problematic. They will then have to consider timing their sleep accordingly. This also applies for sleeping after intensive training sessions. Coaches will have to respect not only these principles, but whenever possible, also take into account an athlete’s chronotype.

Group/Team sports exercises/training

For group exercises, whenever possible, teams comprising a number of Muslim athletes should train at night after Iftar (first Meal consumed at sunset when breaking the fast).

For the teams that are in Muslim minority countries and comprising few Muslim players, most of the sessions will be held in the morning and/or the afternoon, making it difficult for the players to fast and perform at their best.

To optimise the management of training and/or competing during the month of Ramadan for Muslim athletes, Aspetar’s experts have developed the tips below:

Tips for Maintaining Good Sports Performance during Ramadan

  • Exercise time and intensity may require a slight adjustment ie training after sunset is optimal.
  • If the coach wants to prescribe training twice a day, a light training session can be held right before Iftar. Then, three hours after the Iftar meal, the team can conduct intensive training sessions.
  • It is preferable to keep light intensity sessions or resistance training sessions (muscle strengthening) as options for pre-Iftar timings. High intensity and/or long training sessions should start around three hours after Iftar.
  • Coaches should be familiar with the internal biological clock and the implications of changing habits on sports performance when they are planning their training schedule.
  • Athletes should avoid long naps at inappropriate times because this can have a major effect on sleeping later at night.
  • Athletes should consume an appropriate amount of food during Iftar and Suhoor to ensure fitness for training and competitions.
  • Athletes must replenish themselves with adequate fluids and salts (especially sodium) after sunset and before sunrise to prevent dehydration. Drinking should be performed often and in small quantities, as drinking too much at once is counter-productive.
  • Coaching and medical staff should closely monitor athletes training, food and fluid consumption, and sleeping habits.
  • Coaches should consider pre-Ramadan training. This will not only help the athletes cope with these conditions physiologically, but also help them acclimatise to training while fasting.
  • Coaches and sport psychologists should consider that the way they speak about Ramadan fasting can negatively or positively affect their athletes. It is important to work on the athletes’ perception of the topic, and even consider mental training to optimise athlete performance during Ramadan.
  • In case of training/competing in the heat, athletes should consider pre-cooling strategies and possibly mouth rinsing procedures. The latter has been shown to be effective in dampening the negative effects of fasting on long duration sessions. Nevertheless, athletes should be aware that Aspetar research has shown that mouth rinsing procedures are accompanied by a slight risk of inadvertently swallowing the rinsing liquid.